Crawlspace (1986)

Film Title

Crawlspace

Synopsis

A Nazified acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree

Director

David Schmoeller

Cast

Klaus Kinski
Talia Balsam
Barbara Whinnery
Kenneth Robert Shippy

Sometimes you want a movie to educate, move or inspire you.

And sometimes you just wanna watch that pint-sized Teutonic nutter Klaus Kinski collect eyeballs.

Now I’m not one to condemn actors for their off-screen behavior or ill-judged Tweets. I don’t really care what they get up to or what their political affiliations are. I just focus on the movies and have always found it pretty damn easy to separate person and artist. For example, Charlton Heston used to be president of that awful, borderline criminal organization, the NRA. Don’t care. I still love Planet of the Apes. Sean Connery was in favor of smacking chopsy women. Not brilliant, but nowhere near enough to stop me pulling the plug on his tussles with Oddjob. Bollocks to all that Orwellian cancel culture shit. Expecting artists to be saints or share the same outlook is really boring, immature and unrealistic. Don’t you know they’re often as messed up as you and me?

Saying that, sometimes familiarity with a star’s life can amplify how you respond to their work. Look at Karen Carpenter, one obviously sad lady. Knowing about her pathetic, drawn-out struggles, in which she literally tried to fade from view, really adds to the melancholy timbre of a song like Rainy Days and Mondays. It makes the sentiment more authentic; you know?

It’s a similar situation with Klaus Kinski. When he wasn’t a ranting, bug-eyed madman radiating hostility, he was apparently preying on and terrorizing his daughters. This information definitely adds a frisson to his performances, especially if playing a murderous, Nazi-haunted voyeur.

Crawlspace is a key Kinski movie. Given the nature of his role as Karl Gunther, he’s surprisingly restrained throughout, as exemplified by his serene expressions, lack of rants and fondness for open-necked shirts and cardigans. However, nothing can disguise the depth of depravity on display. This is one messed up little flick that doesn’t seem to generate much respect in horror circles. Not sure why. It’s a good, short watch and often displays imagination and inventiveness (catch the Newton’s Cradle clacking away in a fridge full of rats). Indeed, its pre-credits opening is near-perfection.

We see a nervous, flashlight-carrying girl wandering around an apartment block’s empty corridors and stairways. She comes to an open door. “Mr Gunther…?” she hesitantly calls out, switching on the flashlight while peering into the darkened room. The chattering of unseen rats can be heard.

Don’t go in, girl. For fuck’s sake, don’t go in.

She creeps in, the flashlight revealing vaguely sinister clutter. The door swing shuts behind her and automatically locks. Her flashlight beam picks out a crop-haired female in a small cage on the floor, a prisoner who immediately becomes agitated and starts making incoherent noises. We see Gunther is also in the room. He switches on the main light, causing the girl to spin. “She can’t talk,” he says, pointing to his prisoner. “I cut her tongue out.” Cut to a close-up shot of a severed tongue in a jar of formaldehyde. The girl backs away as a very relaxed Gunther adds: “What a shame. I really liked you.” The girl swallows. “Liked…?” Gunther presses a button and a spearing device shoots out from the wall and impales her as the imprisoned girl beats her head.

Pretty good, huh? Certainly enough to hook me in, but director Schmoeller quickly outdoes himself by switching to an overhead shot of Gunther in a different room sitting at a table twiddling a scalpel. There’s also a handgun, a solitary bullet and what looks like a blank piece of card in front of him. The camera floats down until we’re level with that extraordinary face. He slices open a fingertip before wiping the blood on the side of a personally engraved bullet. He slips it into the chamber, spins it and puts the barrel to his forehead. He pulls the trigger to the sound of an empty click. Giving the weakest of smiles, he whispers “So be it.” Then he picks up the card and flips it over.

It reads Apartment for rent.

Mein Gott, what a start! In four minutes flat, Schmoeller has doled out a plethora of warped information with less than twenty words spoken. It’s a technical master class of Show, don’t tell. We know Gunther’s a landlord who builds murderous contraptions. We know he’s a sadist and experienced, matter-of-fact killer. We know he’s fascinated by death and flirts with experiencing it, suggesting guilt or at least a troubled conscience. Whatever the case, another victim will soon be lured into his lethal web. We also doubt he wells up if he happens to hear a Karen Carpenter song.

Gunther is the son of a Dachau concentration camp doctor, a man who was executed for crimes against humanity back in 1945. Gunther, a former Hitler Youth member, has also become a doctor, but it’s fair to say he’s long forgotten his Hippocratic oath. For a start, nearly seventy patients under his care at an Argentinean hospital didn’t make it through the night. Since arriving in America, he’s been unable or unwilling to shake off his troubling addiction to death. Or as he writes in his diary: “Killing is my heroin, my opiate, my fix. It gives me a God-like sensation that goes beyond that special feeling doctors have because they can save lives. When you can take away life as easily as you can save it, that is a feeling very few people ever experience.”

Crawlspace is not a sleazy, nasty movie, even though it concentrates on the worst kind of human behavior. I wouldn’t say it pulls its punches, but it mostly prefers black comedy and a tongue in cheek approach. For example, a prowling, knife-wielding rapist turns out to be role playing while the amount of nudity (one pair of tits!) that a hardcore peeping tom would surely encounter is kept disappointingly low.

Unfortunately, Schmoeller does drop the ball when it comes to Crawlspace’s other characters. In particular, he should’ve gone a lot more Kubrickian on his Final Girl. A Shelley Duvall-level of exhausted horror was needed, but she’s just not up to the job. Not that it matters too much when you’ve got Kinski. He’s the whole show here, typified by the scene in which he smears lipstick Joker-style on his face before slipping on a peaked army cap as black and white footage of the Third Reich flickers over his manic face. “I am my own God, my own jury and my own executioner,” he barks while clicking his heels together. “Heil, Gunther!”

Well, if that doesn’t whet your appetite, I dunno what will.  

About Dave Franklin

Dismayed by the state of post-2000 cinema, Dave Franklin hasn't visited a movie house in more than a decade. He can usually be found in a dingy room dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, pining for the lost days of 70's cinema. Saying that, he will visit you for an appropriate fee to read excruciating excerpts from his novels.